Hey Congress, Maybe You Need Some Political Science


Tom Coburn on C-SPAN
Oklahoma’s junior U.S. senator, Republican Tom Coburn, has been dubbed “Dr. No” in the past.
Last week, I attended a grants conference put on by the National Science Foundation. A few hundred faculty researchers and administrators gathered to discuss the NSF funding process. The NSF supports the U.S. science research infrastructure and is responsible for much of the research success higher education has enjoyed since World War II.

We all know about the hyperpartisanship in Washington as well as the anti-intellectual vibe in many political corners. Historically, federal science policy has not been directly impacted by partisanship as much as other aspects of government. There is a long history of rhetoric against seemingly wasteful science, but specific actions have been few and far between.

This post by Michael Harris originally appeared at his blog, Higher Ed Professor. It appears here with his permission.
Sadly, this is changing.

Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and one of the staunchest deficit hawks in Congress has decided to attack NSF. Specifically, he has sought to defund the political science funding awarded by NSF.

Coburn suggests that NSF should be funding “real” science such as biology or chemistry. Further, he contends politics should be left to politicians and voters not the research community.

Last year, Coburn successfully added an amendment to the appropriations bill that restricted funding of NSF’s political science program.

This year’s NSF appropriations bill stalled in the Senate because of an impasse over how to handle amendments such as Coburn’s.

Of course, the irony is that approval of Congress is in the single digits. You would think they would welcome any help they could get.

Much of the critique of the NSF’s political science funding are similar to other social science attacks.

Despite these criticisms, social science is profoundly important in today’s world.  Many of the greatest challenges we face as a country are tied to political science.

Recent history with both Iraq and Afghanistan should illustrate the importance of political structures to those countries and our own national security.

Many in academe (myself included) have criticized Coburn. Yet, I think we as an academic community also need to take more responsibility for clearly and concisely communicating the value of the work that we do.

How can we expect the public to support academic research if we can’t explain the value of research to society?

This is a critical role for researchers to play in the ongoing debate over federal science policy.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure any amount of education or even popular support would sway senators like Tom Coburn. Maybe that’s a problem political science can tackle next.


Michael Harris

Michael Harris, who blogs at Higher Ed Professor, is an associate professor of higher education and director of the higher education program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Hisprimary scholarly interests are in public policy and the organization of public higher education. Much of his current research examines the issue of institutional diversity and the interplay between market forces, government involvement, and higher education.

My research has been published in the Journal of Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, Innovative Higher Education, Planning for Higher Education, Community College Journal of Research and Practice, Trusteeship, and reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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